Feminism and the New Asceticism

Celibacy is an oft-discredited and overlooked model. Many great men were celibate—at least, e.g., the greater part of those dusty old premodern dead white guys. I am not suggesting that I personally have the gift or even the doom, but the idea does have a undeniable rational appeal. But beyond any idiosyncratic sentiments, I wonder if the whole culture would be the better from self-examination here.

The instant crisis of American culture in particular and of Western socialist-democratic culture in general, does not, I suggest, consist simply in the decline of the family, but is, certainly, bound up in its erosion. Part and parcel of that erosion are two related doctrines: romanticism and self-realization. We are perhaps accustomed to identify the latter with some porn-pushing ACLU type or, what is worse, with some dying gay coughing up blood. What we perhaps overlook is the true identity of the former.

Contemporary Christian conservatives tend to counter the worship of sex with what is really only another idol: the bourgeois home. In reality, may I suggest that the final product of this belief in “family values” is the broken home, just as self-slaughter is sequel to amor sui. Is this so strange? Men divorce, desert, and betray women for all sorts of common and relatively bestial reasons. This has pretty much always been the case. (The “poor,” in this sense, are always with us.) But the great tide towards divorce is something very different. Modern divorce is simply the endgame of an autonomous, historically feminist dream of romance which posits marriage as a mystical union in which two people become one not on the basis of the oaths they swear or the children born of their genetic union, but on the basis of a shared emotional, quasi-spiritual experience. In her own way, the divorcee is doing nothing more than asserting her ultimate faith in “family values.” She cannot continue in a marriage without “love,” with a spouse whom she perceives as, at bottom, essentially a failure because unequal to her idol of an ideal.

It is not my place to fault my mother’s gender as such. This is the Adamic sin. But it is crucially important for Christian evangelicals to understand that they can only lose at kulturkampf, so long as romantic love is enthroned as the sine qua non of marriage. It is not secret that this ideal of romance is, characteristically, a feminine weakness. Men, taken categorically, do not buy feel-good greeting cards. Nor are they the primary consumers of those tangible tokens in which the marketplace tries to sell the intangible. Men, rather, are typically and ordinarily content with vice of simple lust.

If in classical Rome, Christianity faced a culture glutted on lust, today, in our secular democracies, Christianity faces a market gorged on love, “love” exhausted into impotence by the kitschy sentimentality of the valentine. If the Playboy ethos represents essentially a reversion to the spirit of old paganism, with its depersonalization of the feminine, perhaps we may identify the idolization of romance, with its hopeless burden on the male, as the final realization of apostate, secular consumer culture.

What am I trying to say? Well, I am rather wondering aloud as to whether single Christians of both sexes might be called to forswear the cult of romance in a similar way to that in which they seek to guard their chastity. Furthermore, I am suggesting that the presence of this grand idol should inspire a fresh wave of exemplary asceticism, in which some men and women individually not only reject the romantic illusion as normative but also reject as false that bourgeois ideal which identifies marriage and parenthood as universal norms irrespective of religious or secular vocation.

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